Meddling Kids Attempt to Thwart Book Trashing

I don't care if it was a copy of "Hannibal," it's still a waste of resources. (Tony Hutchings/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images)

As a book lover, I hate to see perfectly readable tomes mistreated. Maybe it's a slightly misguided notion, based on some feeling that by disrespecting the vessel, you're disrespecting the knowledge inside it.* Regardless, trashing a readable book still falls under the heading of unnecessary waste in many people's minds.

According to Becky Striepe over at GreenUpgrader, Borders is closing 200 of its Waldenbooks stores around the country. At the end of January 2010, Borders will hand off the unsold books to a third-party liquidator. Whatever doesn't wind up on a shelf somewhere goes in the trash, and the company has stated that there won't be anything left over to donate.

Needless to say, Borders' plan has rubbed quite a few people the wrong way, especially in wake of the whole H&M fiasco. Following public outcry, the clothing chain opted to donate unsold merchandise instead of destroying it.

At the heart of it all is the argument that we, as a culture, produce too much and waste too much. After all, I'm sure some of the books bound for liquidation aren't on anyone's to-read list.. Who really wants a copy of the 2009 Farmer's Almanac? This issue revolves around how overproduction and waste are part of the accepted business model for so much in our consumer culture. In Borders' defense, the company is not doing anything here that isn't an industry standard -- as wasteful as it is.

Here are a few possibilities worth considering:

E-Books: I only occasionally enjoy a digital audio book and am thus far opposed to the Kindle and its ilk. Yet both options are undeniably greener methods for pursuing the printed word. I mean, as long as you're not counting all the outdated and burned-out devices that wind up in the trash eventually. The Espresso Book Machine: This inspiring bit of print-on-demand technology (profiled here on Treehugger) can turn a digital book into a bound print copy in an average of five minutes (105 pages every minute). With this method, there are no more storehouses of unsold books bound for the dump. Plus, there wouldn't be such thing as an out-of-print book anymore. If Google scanned it, you might well have it in your hands again. Of course, at a cost of $75,000, the Espresso Book Machine would spit out volumes with an estimated $40 to $45 price tag.

Turn that book into art: If you absolutely have to trash a book, then why not give it new life as a work of art? Recycled book art has been quite the Internet craze over the past year, with projects ranging from flower planters to full-blown sculptures.

And, as my Stuff From the Science Lab co-podcaster Allison Loudermilk was happy to point out, there are always the libraries to turn to.

So think about this the next time you head toward a trash can with a book, or pass the "free" rack at your local used bookseller. Is there maybe a better way? You can find out more about the effort to sway industry standards on book waste at the GreenUpdater post or visit the Facebook group about the campaign against Borders' policy. * In Thailand, this is a more accepted way of looking at things. You don't throw a book in Bangkok unless you're looking to rack up your Ugly American points.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.